Review: Gellhorn by Caroline Moorehead

Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life by Moorehead, Caroline (2004) Paperback - Caroline Moorehead

This is the kind of book where I have to wrestle a bit with the star ratings. Well into the book I decided I really did not like a lot of Martha Gellhorn's personality and attitude, but the book is incredibly well written - so I never wanted to stop reading. My dislike is probably a great indication of how well Moorehead gives us all angles of what Gellhorn was like - the interesting, the frustrating and the "thank god no one I know acts like this" moments. She was one of those women who are not easy to be friends with, and if she decided she didn't like you or was bored of you, she'd drop you eventually and you'd never see her again. Short version: she was difficult. (I could go on a tangent here about how soooo many biographies of great authors could be summed up this way!)


I was ready to be completely on Gellhorn's side by the way - a woman reporter that was known for going places and getting the stories that the men around her simply weren't writing. Not to mention that it was much, much easier for the men to get to the front lines in many of the wars, when Gellhorn's gender was always something she was either having to talk around or use to get to certain locations. I was also ready to be on her side about Hemingway - she was his third wife. I've read enough of his books and his bios to really dislike if not hate the man. Problem is that in most ways Gellhorn was just as self absorbed and selfish as Hemingway was. Not to mention she kept getting involved with married men which, er, well the excuse that "it just happened blah blah blah love blah blah" doesn't wash when she does this repeatedly. But then chalk that up to me not understanding how someone can repeatedly do that to other women (you know, the wives) and then somehow forget that and become angered when cheated on themselves. And I won't even get into the frustration of how she treats her adopted child - except to say that a war orphan shouldn't be dumped on a nanny and then left for long periods of time - I don't have kids but I can understand that this is a stupid idea, and unfair to a child whose life is repeatedly disrupted. Again, Gellhorn was selfish, and admitted she was, and selfish people don't get this kind of thing.


Having said all that, it's definitely worth a read. And excruciating reading it is too - especially the struggles with writing when she has writers block, which she suffers with her entire career. She desperately wanted to write something better than her last work, and she was always her harshest critic. She didn't receive much acclaim for her writing until the end of her career - before then the attitude was roughly "good, for a woman" and "her talent probably all came from Hemingway."


Gellhorn reported on the horrors of war that other reporters weren't really getting - the human side of things - the doctors treating the wounded, the war orphans, the widows - the people. In World War 2 most other reporters tended to focus on battles, strategy, and vague mentions of casualties - keeping well away from anything critical or depressing.


Gellhorn was constantly enraged at any injustice - of which there are always plenty in war. She fought against anything she saw as unjust throughout her life. Which is where some other problems come in - for instance, the reporter's objectivity is something she never bought into. This sounds nice in that you do want a reporter to care about the actual human beings behind the story - but when it came to Israel vs Palestine Gellhorn was blindly pro-Israel and overtly anti-Palestine and anti-arab in a way that no journalist would publish now except as the most flamebait editorial. This and many other "questionable journalism" examples are what author Moorehead is wonderful at writing about - there are no excuses for Gellhorn's thoughts or actions, none of these sorts of issues are swept under the rug. Moorehead does suggest ideas about what might have been going on in Gellhorn's mind in these incidents - if there isn't a letter or interview to cite. These suggestions are just that - suggested and never writen as factual statements. Moorehead's scholarship includes many interviews with living relatives and friends, reading Gellman's many notebooks full of research, and going through massive amounts of letters by Gellhorn and others - as well as having known Gellhorn herself while she was alive. I'd say Moorehead's theories hold up when she tries to grasp for reasons that Gellhorn behaved and thought the way she did.


Not sure how to work this in anywhere so I'll just add this, because there should be a head's up - Gellhorn commits suicide at age 89. She hated relying on others, hated her failing health and growing weakness, and continually hated the fact that men no longer admired her looks once she aged. (I am overtly eyerolling over the "my self worth hinges on the fact that others admire my looks" but then that's me. Gellhorn started moaning over this long before her 80s - and oddly she was someone that didn't tolerate anyone whining or self pitying. Go figure.)


Somewhere I had a piece of paper with page numbers I wanted to quote but it's managed to scamper off somewhere. So I'll just share a bit from her World War 2 reporting. Gellhorn was punished by the military with the loss of her papers allowing her to report as a journalist after she managed to board a hospital ship (without leave to) in order to cover D Day. She continued reporting the war anyway. After interviewing Spanish refugees near Toulouse:


p. 233

"...Her piece for Collier's ended with her customary ring of hope.

"These people remain intact in spirit. They are armed with a transcendent faith... they have never accepted defeat... and you can believe quite simply that, since they are what they are, there will be a republic across the mountains and that they will live to return to it." A typescript of Martha's article is filed in the archives of Collier's. Across the top, someone has written, "This is not bad for tear jerker sort of stuff."


Ever since returning to Europe before D Day, Martha, for all her misgivings, had wanted to fly with the air corps on a mission to Germany. Her requests had been turned down, mainly on the grounds that she was a woman; and once she lost her papers, she had not wanted to draw attention to herself. Now, with nothing to lose, she talked her way on board a P-61 Black Widow on a night flight over Germany, becoming the first woman correspondent to do so. "Terrified beyond belief," she noted that the plane was very beautiful, like a "delicate deadly dragonfly." "The bombed factories and houses, the pitted ground," she wrote in her notebook, once the ordeal of takeoff had been accomplished and she was wedged on a cushion behind the pilot in an agony of discomfort, clutching an ill-fitting oxygen mask over her face. "Burning smoke and the Rhine ugly and flat here and like a sewer river... In this immensity of sky C-47s like plough horses... This land is a desert and these people who loved order and finally insanely wished to impose their order, are now given chaos as a place to live in." At dinner after the mission, the pilots talked about what would happen to them after the war, and about how long babies were when they were first born because one man had just heard that he had become a father. "Seven men down - no one spoke of it. Drinking and singing 'I want to go home.'"